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City Limits

Here on the west edge, the town turned its back on the west,
gave up the promise, nodded good-bye to a highway
that narrowed away, and with a sunset-red bandanna
bid the shimmering tracks go on, go on.

Go west, young man, cheered Horace Greeley, and west
rattled the new country, rocking along through the sparks,
the cattle dying, the children sick, the limits
always ahead like a wall of black mountains.

But the steam cooled and condensed, the pistons rusted.
The dead weight of trunks thudded onto the platform,
bursting their leather straps. Generations spilled out
and we settled for limits: strung fence wire, drew plat maps

with streets squared to the polestar, passed finicky laws,
built churches true: the bubble centered in the spirit level.
We let the plumb bob swing till it stopped with its point
on the spot where we were, where we were to remain.

The frontier rolled on ahead; we never caught up
with whatever it was, that rolling wave or weather front,
those wings of cloud. The news came back, delivered by failure,
a peach-crate of rags, a face caved in over its smiles.

We thrived on the failure of others; rich gossip
flowered like vines on the trellises. On porches,
what once had been dream leaned back on its rockers.
We could have told them. We could have told them so.

The bean-strings ran back and forth through the vines
defining our limits. Children played by the rules:
cat's cradle, Red Rover. Morticians showed up
with wagons of markers. The dead lay in their places.

Our horses grew heavy and lame tied to pickets
and our wheel-rims rusted and sprang from their spokes.
Fire-pit became city, its flashing red pennants strung
over the car lot. We signed on the line at the bank.

What we'd done to the Indians happened to us.
Our hearts had never been in it, this stopping;
we wanted a nowhere but gave ourselves over to gardens.
Now our old campsite limits itself on the west

to the lazy abandon of sunset – a pint bottle
whistling the blues in a dry prairie wind. Next to
the tracks, turning first one way and then another,
a switch with red eyes wipes its mouth with a sleeve.

Poet Laureate Ted Kooser – "City Limits"

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Other Poems by Ted Kooser:

"Abandoned Farmhouse"
"Barn Owl"
"The Great Grandparents"
"Great Plains in Winter"
"Horse"
"How to Foretell a Change
   in the Weather"
"In the Corners of Fields"
"Memory"
"Osage"
"Riding the Bus in Midwinter"
"So This is Nebraska"
"Spring Plowing"
"There is Always a Little Wind"
"Tillage Marks"
"Zenith"